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January 31, 2015

What Black History Month Should Be

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Black History Month: Black Gives Back Blog Talks Black Philanthropy

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Tracey Webb is a young black woman making history as the first online chronicler of black philanthropy. Most people think of big names like Oprah or Diddy when blacks donating money comes to mind – but this is hardly the extent of African American social generosity. African American philanthropists come from every economic bracket, have existed throughout our history and are not all famous. The founder of BlackGivesBack.com, Ms. Webb works tirelessly through her blog to ensure that the world is informed about the large and complex world of black philanthropy. To celebrate Black History Month, Tracey took some time to talk with Black Voices about the importance of African Americans supporting each other through community service and financial grants, and why black philanthropy is critical to our future.

What made you decide to start Black Gives Back? What spawned your interest in black philanthropy?

I come from a family of givers. I've been working with non-profit organizations and volunteering my time ever since I was a little girl. I also believe it comes from my family lineage. I majored in psychology for both undergrad and grad school, and then worked in direct services with teen parents, substance abusers and the homeless. As I moved further along in my career, I noticed that a lot of the organizations that I worked with were serving African Americans, while the people who were on the boards of directors, and the people who were raising the fund, were white. So I decided at that point that I wanted to get into grant-making and philanthropy. My full-time job now is working as a grant-maker.

Then a few years ago my friends kept bugging me to start a blog. I thought about it for a while, and it took me three months to come up with a name and the concept. BlackGivesBack.com was born in 2007 as a natural extension of my charitable efforts.


Given that it's Black History Month, let's talk about the relationship between black philanthropy and black activism. Do you see a connection in history?

Oh definitely. I was reading a book recently about African American philanthropy and this connection to black activism. The roosts of black philanthropy were actually sparked as a reaction to slavery. Our forefathers pooled their resources to help slaves gain freedom, and also to support them once they became free. There were so many mutual aid societies, churches and schools that were established with those funds. When you look at black history, it is a lot of black philanthropy. People always talk about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but a lot of people don't know that she pooled her resources with others' to establish homes and provide education after slaves became free. So it wasn't just about getting people free. She also provided those services to help people get where they needed to be.

Is Black History Month still a useful and purposeful way to celebrate our achievements?

I don't think it's bad. I think it's important and is needed. But I would like to see more of a spotlight on our living legends, people who are making history that are still living. We always seem to focus on the past. But there are so many people who are still living. We could tap into their wisdom, they could talk to youth. Like Ruth Simmons, the first black president of Brown University, and the surviving Tuskegee Airmen. We just need to broaden our scope and bring to light these hidden gems.

What is your favorite black philanthropy and who would you say is the biggest black philanthropist of all time?

I'm going to be biased because I have my own charity! My favorite black organization is mine. I founded a giving circle in 2005, which is a group of individuals who pool their monies for a given cause. It's called The Black Benefactors. We just gave out our first grants recently totaling $10,000, so I'm really, really excited, because it's been almost five long years in the making. I'm also happy to say that all the organizations that we funded are African American-led. And even though we are called The Black Benefactors, people think you have to be black to join – not true! We have members of different races.
[In terms of my favorite black philanthropist of all time], I'm not going to say a celebrity. Oseola McCarty was a woman who saved up her money for years and when she passed away she left $150,000 [to the University of Southern Mississippi] for students to further their education. She is probably the most inspirational, because she showed that you do not have to be rich in order to give back to your community. She saved up her money for years, and she did not tell anyone. She worked washing clothes. Her gift shocked everybody. That's how passionate she was about helping students.

Then there are also lesser known, but prominent, African Americans like Eddie and Sylvia Brown. Eddie Brown has donated $5 million to the Baltimore public school system [to help African American students]. At the Maryland Institute College of Art this African American couple has a building in their name – The Eddie and Sylvia Brown Center. They donated $7 million to this organization.

You profile many celebrities on Black Gives Back. Do you have a favorite story of working with a celebrity or their organization?

Now, Kanye catches a lot of flack. But I will say that when I met the staff of his foundation, they are awesome people who know their stuff. When I talked to Kanye's mother briefly before she passed, I asked her "how did you select the people to run your organization." And she said, even before Kanye became famous, he wanted to give back. He was always concerned about when they were going to give back.


The singer Mya has a foundation that is a camp for kids in DC. I went to one of their year-end celebrations. You can really tell that Mya loves what she does with the kids and is very passionate about her foundation.

What do you see as the connection between black philanthropy and our future as a community?

Black philanthropy is essential for our future. It is being predicted that by 2050 communities of color with constitute over half of the population. We definitely need to ensure now that we will have resources available for us. It's still unfortunately the case that many organizations that primarily serve African American communities are headed by whites who are not connected to communities of color. Very few of the major foundations have people of color on their boards. One that does is Target. Laysha Ward is the head of their philanthropic efforts. So we do have some that are in those very important positions. We just need to support the people and organizations in place now, and make sure that we are in control of the funds that will serve our community.

What is the connection between giving and greatness?

There is definitely a connection between giving and greatness. It's even in the Bible. Everybody has something to give. Even if you don't have money, you can use your talents. Whatever you're good at, you can use that to benefit an organization. Just using whatever you have to help others who are less fortunate than you makes you a great person. When you give, it just makes you feel better. And when you give, you will get it back.

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